Friday, April 29, 2016

Donald Ray Johnson – These Blues, the Best of Donald Ray Johnson | Album Review

Donald Ray Johnson – These Blues, the Best of Donald Ray Johnson

Self Release

13 tracks / 59:00

Donald Ray Johnson has certainly managed to get around, and has come a long way since he was born in Bryan, Texas. As a young man he worked the cotton fields and learned how to play the drums, leading to a career that started when he was 14 with legendary blues pianist, Nat Dove. After an all expenses paid trip to Southeast Asia (courtesy of the US Navy), he returned to Southern California, where he hooked up with the blues scene again. You may know of him as a member of A Taste of Honey, which won the Best New Artist Grammy in 1979.

Johnson moved to Calgary, Alberta in 1989 and since then he has recorded six mighty fine blues albums, and his voice is just as good as his work on the traps. These Blues, the Best of Donald Ray Johnson is a compilation of nuggets from this body of work, though it must have been tough to narrow it down to only an hour of material. The thirteen tracks on this disc reveal a lot of versatility as it includes a little rhythm and blues and a touch of country, but it is mostly hard-hitting Chicago style blues. For a Canadian citizen that grew up in Texas and honed his craft in LA, he has a lot of the Windy City in him!

Nine of these tracks are originals, and he included four pretty cool covers for good measure. Donald opens the set with one of these, the Reverend Al Green’s “Ain’t No Fun to Me” which has a rock-solid backline (not surprisingly, he is a drummer after all), with plenty of harp, horns and Hammond. Johnson’s voice is a wonderfully hearty, but still smooth. This is a great tune, and all of the other tracks are just as good, which makes it hard to pick favorites, but I will give it a shot. Here are a few:

- It seems like every great bluesman has written at least one drinking song, and “Me and Jack (Daniels)” is Donald’s contribution to the community. This romp features a popping bass line, and an incredibly visual depiction of a man’s battle with the bottle. In this case the bottle always wins…

- “Always On My Mind” is one of my all-time favorite tunes, and this one provide a cool contrast to the most famous version, which was done by Willie Nelson (sorry, Elvis fans). Though this one also uses mainly country-style acoustic guitar as accompaniment, Donald’s voice is so much smoother than Willie’s that it makes this sad song new to me again.

-Johnny Taylor’s “Last Two Dollars” makes my list, as Johnson lays down some of the sexiest rhythm and blues lyrics you will ever hear. Of course, it helps that he started out with a very well written song that motors right through when played by one of the tightest bands you could put together.

- “No Guitar Blues” has plenty of guitar in it, courtesy of Michael Huston. This slow-rolling smooth blues track bemoans the fact that the blues community expects a front man to have an axe over their shoulder, and not be sitting behind a drum kit. The lyrics are witty and there is a glorious sax break and killer leads from Huston. This original song defines what Johnson is all about, so there was no way he could leave it off this “best of” compilation.

If you are not familiar with his work, These Blues, The Best of Donald Ray Johnson would be a perfect way to become familiar with his work. But be careful, after hearing it you might end up buying his other six CDs!

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